Educar has been involved with training 12 volt professionals on process, theory, and system design for many years. These articles address the process of selling, installing, tuning, and how to present new audio system technologies effectively.

“Why Did Things Get So Complicated?”

“I’ve been in this business for decades”, says the longtime shop owner. “This business used to be simple. Why did things get so complicated?”

1. It didn’t make sense for the car radio display, controls, and functions to remain isolated from everything else in the car. Logical progress here has made head units difficult to replace.

We live in a time where we can buy refrigerators and doorbells with Internet access built in. Expecting a screen, speakers, and buttons on a car dash to be reserved for us in a 4×7 rectangle might have been a bit optimistic.

We probably noticed it first with GM in North America. The chimes started sounding through the OEM head unit, and OnStar telematics used the audio system for the handsfree communication with the driver.

BMW and then GM started using network-controlled audio systems, where the amplifier had the preamplifier functions in it – rather than in the in-dash receiver – and a proprietary network connection relayed commands like “turn on” and “volume up one click” back to the amplifier.

Mercedes and then Jaguar used a new fiber-optic network technology called D2B to connect the audio devices together, carrying audio and commands. That didn’t last long, it was replaced by a new method called MOST 25. We just called that MOST until MOST 50 and then MOST 150 came to market, with Toyota and GM using MOST 50 for a while, and the many Europeans using MOST 150.

Now many automakers have abandoned MOST 25 or 50 and adopted automotive Ethernet-based networks, running their own messages. Few of us are going to start hacking CAN, MOST, or Ethernet applications in our spare time. We are going to depend on third-party companies supplying us with various kinds of translation interfaces. Some of those companies are better at reverse engineering than others, but all of them have limitations on the resources they can put into this effort – and there are.

2. Chipmakers have delivered DSP chips that help us perform lots of audio processing we never had access to before - and which most of us have never been effectively trained on.

Crossovers, we kind of got. Those used to be in amps. Delay and parametric EQ definitely weren’t familiar to most of us. Now we have all-pass filters, which are definitely not familiar to many of us.

When these devices first started to appear, many old-school car-audio guys complained “it sounds too digital”. Allow me to translate: “I don’t know what I’m doing with this stuff, but I’m not about to admit it because my identity is the guy that knows everything, because I’ve been doing this 20 years”.

We probably would have sorted out a lot of this better than we have so far as an industry, if we were doing this with aftermarket head units. Number one made that difficult, though, and then number three came along at the same time.

3. Those chipmakers went and sold those same DSP chips to suppliers to the OEMs, and their acoustic engineers have done things which can trip us up.

Those suppliers – Harman, Alpine, Bose, etc. – have used those chips in some pretty innovative ways, and we have to learn about what they’re doing so we can do the proper things ourselves. While we may not like the final result, they were trying to solve some problems in the car cabin, and we should probably look at what they’re doing to see if any of it is useful for us to hang on to.

Active crossovers were a pain, but we sorted that. Equalization can be an issue. Active equalization can really be a problem.

What do we do?

Stop waiting for Santa Claus.

This is where we are. Sitting around in the rocking chairs on the front porch complaining won’t get the cows milked. What do we do now?

Put the margins back into the head-unit business.

You can’t figure out these challenges for 20 points out of a hundred bucks.  I will talk about a way to do this in another column soon.

Learn about audio.

Invest in tools and skills that allow us to navigate OEM audio systems and deliver better-sounding audio ourselves. We need to learn what OEMs are doing, AND what we can do.